Disability Studies Quarterly Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3 <www.dsq-sds.org> Copyright 2007 by the Society for Disability Studies

Return to Table of Contents for Vol. 27 No.3

Kuppers, Petra. Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Reviewed by Zosha Stuckey <zstuckey@syr.edu>, Syracuse University

If the relations between embodiment and meaning become unstable, the unknown can emerge not as site of negativity but as the launch pad for new explorations. By exciting curiosities, by destabilizing the visual as conventionalized primary access to knowledge, and by creating desires for new constellations of body practice, these disability performances can attempt to move beyond the known into the realm of bodies as generators of positive difference (94).

Petra Kuppers' Scar of Visibility centers around the productive, liberatory moments emblematic of contemporary medical performance art. According to Kuppers, these moments create performative openings, which enact new meanings and new semiotic systems. Medical performances and performances of disability — never knowable, totalizing, stagnant, or definable — hold the potential to produce discourses that exemplify Franz Fanon's phenomenology of the hail.1 That is, disability aesthetics within medical performance art attempt to reconcile the dissonance between how you see me versus how I see me. However, this book does not privilege seeing; rather, as Kuppers positions the supposed certainty of the medical gaze on the periphery, she foregrounds counter-medical and counter-hegemonic narratives that take shape through fantasies, emotionality, and everyday phenomenological experiences of being-in-the-world with an extraordinary body.2

In this provactive text, Kuppers explores the work of various performers, some of who include: Marsian De Lellis, Shimon Attie, Gunter van Hagan, Douglas Gordon, Angela Ellsworth, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Kira O'Reilly, Stelarc, Mona Hatoum, Emilia Telese, David Cronenberg, Marina de Van, Hamad Butt, and Martin Ramirez. Rather than begin her meticulous survey from normative, totalizing labels and identifications of medical diagnoses, Kuppers initiates her discussion with the (un)knowability of the other. The self cannot know the lived experience of the other — that is to say, there is always a gap or a residue that remains between what can be known by a spectator and what the experience is of the interior self of the performer. For Kuppers, the scar marks this liminal and productive space. The scar lies between self and other and creates "bodily border situations" (196). The scar, as a site of production — and as a border zone between self and other — signifies the refusal to locate a knowable reality or a stable truth (153). Consequently, as Kuppers' theories do not privilege vision, neither do they privilege knowledge-making and knowledge-receiving. On the contrary, central to her discussions of alternative embodiments is the undoing of supposedly concrete, stable knowledges through the construction of bodily fantasies. These fantasies, Kuppers argues, disrupt normative representations (stereotypes) of people with disabilities.

Further, to exemplify the undoing of subjugating tropes, Kuppers consistently employs Walter Benjamin's version of "the flaneur." Benjamin's flaneur is the able-bodied man who traverses an urban landscape without awareness of or concern for embodiment. But unlike Benjamin, for whom the flaneur consists of an absence of bodily existence and awareness, for Kuppers, the ordinary movements and experiences of the flaneur propel disabled artists into deploying fantasies of difference. In disable artist's performances of disability/difference, the flaneur rarely reinscribes normative understandings; instead, everyday occurrences of disabled performers expand the scope of possible meanings.

One such example of a work that reinscribes meaning and subverts narratives of medical certainty is Angela Ellsworth's Hemaderby, which, according to Kuppers disprupts the seemingly stable representative trope of body-as-battlefield. Hemaderby consists of a two day, 12 hour roller derby where the skating rink stands in for the body; skaters stand in for red and white blood cells while two bacteria-skaters move against the flow symbolizing "disruptive potential." Meanwhile, Ellsworth — the artist — hangs from ceiling with her head in a decorative traction device (68). While medical knowledge structures the performance, Ellsworth's "cartoonish stylization" ruptures the certainty of the representation of body-as-battlefield. To Kuppers, Hemaderby is "medical knowledge in drag" (69). Through the undoing of certainties and stable knowledges, Kuppers explains, formulaic, stereotypical, and subjugating narratives of disability are subverted, which explains why the performance pieces Kuppers discusses rarely, if at all, deploy the standard narratives of loss, overcoming, pity, catastrophe, exoticism, or sentimentality.

Kuppers also examines Bob Flanagan's Autopsy, which exemplifies the opening up of new meanings and representations regarding pain. Flanagan, through collaborative performances of sado-masochistic pain, (re)constructs meaning out of his childhood experiences as a Cystic Fibrosis poster child. He reclaims himself as a spectacle while denying his spectator's desire to pity, exoticize, or sentimentalize him. According to Kuppers, Flanagan's Autopsy performance constructs physical pain as generative and productive — certainly, only a newly envisioned fantasy can re-imagine physical pain as: "… expressive: its bodily vocabulary can be huge and anatomically exciting, presenting the body in extremis. Pain arouses passions and moves spectators into experiences threatening to the containment of the subject … the expression of pain is also full of communicative power" (74). Whereas Elaine Scarry theorizes pain as non-referential and, therefore, difficult to convey in language, Kuppers describes pain as "traction for bodily fantasies" (75). As Kuppers reads it, Flanagan's depiction of pain in Autopsy is productive in that it fractures normative representations of pain as misfortune, as a debilitating force, as desiring of pity and as deadening to life experience.

In order to juxtapose the productive, re-imaginings of Ellsworth, Flanagan, and various others, Kuppers invokes Gunter van Hagen's BodyWorld, or in German, Korperwelten. BodyWorld is Kupper's fly in the ointment — van Hagan displays bodies that undergo a special, two-year preserving process, the effect of which exemplifies the certainty and perfectibility of medical culture. The bodies are immaculate, of normative stature, weight, and proportion as well as being frozen in time thus denying material realities of disintegration and decomposition. Van Hagan claims that his "art" exhibit provides an educational apparatus — because the bodies have no skin, the spectator examines anatomy as never seen before. For Kuppers, BodyWorld constitutes hegemonic conventions of medical display in which "the artifact is decontextualized and treated as a pure form" (43). From this point of departure, Kuppers theorizes de Certeau's "anti-museum," in contrast to BodyWorld, as an ideological characteristic of liberatory medical performances. As Kuppers writes, "since I do not conceive of bodies as atomic singular entities but rather, as parts of a complex … the human experience of embodiment is rendered as change itself" (44, 51). The stagnant, medical gaze can not subjugate within fluid and constantly changing social, biological, and linguistic processes.

A particularly crucial argument in Kuppers' book is the idea that phantasmic creation can enact social change (129). The fantasies it comments upon not only destabilize normative semiotic systems but also can not escape socio-political action. These artists use medical images to "undermine similarity, structure, and certainty" so that "moments of difference, alignments of power, individuality and sociality" can be opened up (2, 47). For example, performances within Douglas Gordon's touring show demonstrates how the generation of difference questions and even refigures alignments of social, political, and discursive power. A tiny photograph lying within a large frame pictures Gordon himself hitchhiking on the side of a highway. He holds a sign that reads psycho. Another piece in his exhibit, called 24 Hour Psycho, shows Hitchcock's film in slow motion over a period of 24 hours. According to Kuppers, both pieces compel spectators to question the "narrational certainty" of classic psychoanalytic narratives. In this sense, Gordon alters time, presence, and perception so that new cultural representations regarding mental health might be deployed; artists like Gordon use fantasy or the imaginary — or in Deleuzian terms, play and creativity — to enter into what Kuppers calls "the virtual as not-yet-there, a radical potentiality" (71). She writes, "I locate the radical project for unknowable futures in these moments where the conditions of my knowledge as a part of a past become visible — part of personal pasts, social pasts, cultural knowledges. It is these moments of visibility that a desire for difference, a change into futurity, can press on and mutate sensibilities" (66).

This book begs the question: are fantasies and unknowable futures capable of redistributing justice and inciting real social change? Though Kuppers quite effortlessly sees the opening up of possible meanings, could the same be said of a person who has no prior knowledge of productive medical performances? And while I understand the purpose behind Kuppers' use of the word fantasies, I am skeptical as to the productive nature of the word itself. Granted, words — in the same way as bodies — are never isolated entities. However, it would behoove me to understand further some genealogy or contextualization of fantasies similar to the ways in which I understand imaginaries in a post-colonial context. Moreover, when the concept of fantasy is deployed in relation to chronic pain, disability, and medical performance, what deleterious meanings might evolve? Could counter-hegemonic narratives, as fantasies, also devolve into some idealistic whimsy or daydream? In other words, what if the fantasy is purported to be (as I have been told by numerous doctors) "all in my head?"

Furthermore, if medical knowledge is not a starting point in these conversations, then why ascribe the term medical performances to performances of alternative embodiments by disabled artists? Kuppers does acknowledge that Bob Flanagan's work, specifically, "doesn't emerge out of existent medical and other cultural narratives"; yet his work remains fixed within narratives of medical performance (89). Perhaps the publisher exerted too much control over the title. Or, perhaps disability functions as a sub-category of medical performance rather than a central ideological hub. Compared to her previous book, Disability and Contemporary Performance (2004), in this new book readership may be widened by discarding from the title the term disability as well as the fact that Kuppers never overtly positions conventional disability theory as the core ideology of the book, even though it may well be. Conceivably, Kuppers could be attempting to center the book around embodiment in general more than disability specifically.

However, it is Kuppers' embodied and personal reactions to the art that develop her credible, affable persona. For instance, while viewing the sanitized BodyWorld exhibit, she not only notices a "tiny little fungus" growing near one of the specimens but also "found [her]self in the fantasy of 'guarding' that tiny little fungus. I did not point it out to the attendant" (47). While Kuppers clearly does not adhere to any essences of disability, disability remains for Kuppers — to quote Foucault — "a fertile ground for the archaeology of discursive practices" (Kuppers 94).

Nevertheless, I am left contemplating the differentiation of medical performances from that of performances of disability. Kuppers seems to suggest that medical performance is most liberatory and productive when it employs a collection of disability aesthetics — the generation of differences, the blurring of bodily boundaries, the questioning of certainty, perfectibility and stagnancy, the necessity of sensuality, the instability of the connection between self/other and subject/object, the permeability, the lability of the self, and, perhaps most importantly, the unknowing. These performances, perhaps with the exception of BodyWorlds, queston knowing itself as a certainty. As Kuppers asks with regards to Gordon's work: how exactly do you know what a psycho is (61)? Or, in the context of Kira O'Reilly's play with leeches and bodily boundaries: "Why has western thinking so hystericized [leeches]" (106)? Even so, while we may never know these answers, counter-hegemonic meanings continue to prolifically emerge.


  1. Kupper's doesn't draw directly on Fanon; however, that connection is too important to neglect. Return to Text
  2. I am invoking Rosemarie Garland Thomsen's term extraordinary to signify difference in bodies that is not seen as deficient. Kuppers does not use this term. Return to Text
Return to Top of Page